Written by Nike Vrettos
“I can see it in all of your faces, the questions you have about him…”, my guide said. In a whispering tone, so that only our small group of people could hear her, she added: “Pablo. Pablo Escobar.” Many of the people next to me glanced at her with barely hidden excitement. “I will tell you all you want to know about him. But please let us agree to not call him by his name when we refer to him.People on the street often take offense when hearing his name, especially in connection with a group of foreigners.” Some frowned at this statement, then shortly moved on asking whatever was on the tip of their tongues, probably since they got to Colombia. She continued, answering all the question the group had about Narcos, Agent Peña and Agent Murphy from the DEA, and the Medellin Cartel, owned by the infamous drug-lord and 7th richest individual in the world Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.
Already some weeks into my Colombia trip, I imagined I knew a little more than the average tourist. I had talked to a decent amount of people and had read a book and some articles about the country and its political situation, and of course watched “Narcos”. However the more information I gathered, the more I was left wondering about the current situation.
Yet the scope of the terror during “la violencia” and the subsequent drug wars is hard to fathom. “Laviolencia”, a civil war between the liberals and conservative party lasted from 1948-1958, led to over 300.000 deaths and was soon after followed by staggering violence emerging from narcotrafico. For many people this overwhelming brutality is the dominating image of Colombia, their first thought: it’s a dangerous country, don’t go, you’ll be killed.
The war went beyond the drug cartels around Pablo Escobar, as is often thought, extending to an umpteenth level of complexity, including many more players in this cocaine-fuelled game of power. The impact on the local population during that time was grave. The country was smoldering in waves of murder, displacement and the kidnapping of Colombians, who, in most cases, were simply collateral damage. Statistics about kidnapping, displacements and homicide rates are harrowing: 220.000 are said to have been killed between 1958 and 2013, while over 5 million individuals were forcefully displaced between 1996 and 2012, the second largest group of internally displaced people in the world. Children forlornly searched for their dead parents in the ashes of exploded bombs and razed villages; whole towns left in agony for years.
Generally, the name Pablo Escobar is something the majority of Colombians would prefer to erase from their brains. They despise foreigner’s interest in him, mostly because they see him as a demon, who haunts them even after his death. Most locals I talked to have been directly, or at least indirectly, impacted by his terror. Many are reluctant to speak about it, and don’t want to be reminded of those times. Yet, notwithstanding the discomfort of discussing the subject of drug dealing and terror, some share stories about heinous bloodshed in their villages, forced recruitment of young men, and kidnappings that made the entire country hold its breath. Narcotrafico is not a family dinner topic, it is a part of history one doesn’t talk about.
Over 90% of US cocaine comes from Colombia and creates billions of dollars revenue, so much so the story goes that Pablo Escobar once lit up dollar bills for his daughter when she mentioned she was feeling cold. In a country with 38% of the rural population living in poverty (previously even exceeded 60%) this is a preposterous incident. Demand for cocaine from the US and also Europe fuels inconceivable suffering which continues to this day. Although when Pablo Escobar was killed and the two biggest cartels in Calí and Medellin diminished in importance, other players stepped into the power vacuum.
One of the biggest rebel groups in the past century were the FARC, a left-wing rebel group founded in 1964 after the agonizing civil war. They mainly consisted of small farmers and land workers who aimed at fighting the extensive rural inequality. The majority of farm land was and still is primarily controlled by a small elite, creating a pernicious situation for small farmers to exercise control over their own lands. The FARC remained mainly a rural, guerrilla organization funding their activities through cocaine production and ransom. After decades of fighting the government of Juan Santos reached a significant peace deal with the FARC in 2016.
Notwithstanding that deal, groups such as Urabeños are thriving in the business and filled the gap FARC left; producing cocaine in large quantities without a noble cause to fund. Their illicit production takes place in the parts of the country where government influence is infinitesimally low.
Colombia is now described by Western news outlets as the “Phoenix from the Flames” for its positive development in the early 2000s, shaking of the shackles of the reputation it had earned in previous decades . The government of Alvaro Uribe, called “Iron Fist” for his determined steps against the drug lords and the other rebel groups such as FARC, took measurements against drug trafficking in the 2000s. This includes the previously mentioned peace deal with FARC. Despite the government’s effort, a significant number of farmers still depend on the production of coca as their main source of income. Once forced into the production of coca, and even after the FARC peace treaty they continue to grow coca due to a lack of alternatives. The government has not succeeded in providing enough substitutes or lucrative incentives to change to other crops; when an alternative is provided there is often “no market for the new crops and no infrastructure to support them.”
Another issue lies in the fact that the farmers who grow coca illegally usually have no official title to their land. No official title to the land means no aid from the government. So they cannot claim any benefits or subsidy from the government even when they are available. Statistics show that Colombia remains very divided in terms of rural and urban poverty, leaving the rural population, which also includes vulnerable indigenous groups, in a structural disadvantage. Many times the farmers are reticent to report to the government their activities on unregistered land as they fear high punishment by the state in return.
In addition, limited geo-referencing of the vast rural areas and its owners creates space for bandits to rob or force the campesinos to grow lucrative coca instead of crops such as coffee or corn. Usually when found the coca plantations are burned down by police forces leaving the farmers with nothing and even less trust in the government and its ability to help them. If they are not severely punished for illegal cultivation then only one option remains: to grow coca plants again.
One of my mountain guides on a long hike in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, home to indigenous populations such as the Wiwa and the Kogi, told us his father first grew marihuana at the time when it was still a good business. Then the government destroyed everything, the FARC settled in the area, and subsequently his family grew coca and produced cocaine as the only means to survive.
However, the area got lucky. A lost indigenous city was discovered in the mountains sparking tourism, which together with government subsidies, and an increased military presence in the area, moved the local economy away from coca. A region previously lacking government authority and the formal rule of law, managed to change. Where in 2000 the streets heading north from Bogota were closed after 18.00 pm, just years later, I, a white girl traveling alone could accommodate myself without fearing for my life.
It is still undeniable that coca farming is proceeding in other parts of the country. The UN suspects 866 hectare of coca plantations 2016 in Colombia. Areas in which the long arm of the government doesn’t stretch. In a country three times bigger than Germany with vast tropical forests and humongous mountain ranges governmental oversight is not an easy task, especially considering the lacking infrastructure and contending with powerful criminal groups.
As the illegal cultivation continues, it seems that the “war against drugs” is doomed to fail. Colombians and middle men all over the world involved in the export of cocaine are still being killed and the drug business is still responsible for a continuation of a vicious circle which does not elevate the most vulnerable from their suffering. The farmers are left with scarce options to feed their families. The ludicrous sums of profit barely trickles down to the producers, they stay with the distributors. Perhaps the dealing is handled in a less publicly dramatic manner than during times of Pablo Escobar. Nonetheless that does not change the fact that it still exists; vividly in the semi-shadows of society as long cocaine remains demanded in the Western World, and increasingly in Brazil, due to a growing middle class.
A guide in Cartagena asked the group to name 10 great things Colombia is known for: Shakira, Salsa, women… He very much intended to lead the topic away from the rather gloomy past, elaborating on the optimistic attitude of Colombians. As mentioned antecedently, it seemed to me people are barely taking account of the past. The population tries to forget the horrendous era as good as they can. Pablo Escobar is to be erased out of public memory; the topic is not stressed in school, and people barely talk about it with their children. Locals get annoyed when foreigners ask, not wanting to be defined by it. I was walking around Medellin with a Colombian girl who looked at me incensed, repelled that I would be interested to see Escobar’s prison, “La Cathedral”, and asked me if I would not have the decency to honor the dead. Why I would want to waste a minute of interest to Escobar? I responded that my decency was to understand the past and what it contributed to forming contemporary Colombia. She could not comprehend and she left with her eyes filled with wrath.
Coming from Germany I was stunned that such a relevant piece of recent history was just swiped under the carpet as if it had not happened. A man told me, “You probably also never talk about Hitler, its an awful topic, no one wants to be reminded of that dreadful past”. I fervently explained the opposite was true. He looked at me, baffled. “Visiting a concentration camp voluntarily?”, “Children in highschool talk about the Holocaust? Why would I want to trouble their young minds?”. I tried to explain, but the more I said the more he had difficulties following. He seemed distant at times, his eyes gazing in the sunset above the city as if memories he tried to forget forcefully made their way up. I imagined him hearing wailing women grieving over their dead sons in the early mornings, the dew still gently shining on their faces. Some others laying on vast fields like sheaf. I shivered in the warm evening air.
My guide in Medellin elaborated that the government wanted to remove the remaining slivers of a Fernando Botero statue after a bomb blew half of it up and killed 30 people in 1995. The relatives of the victims protested fiercely, so eventually it remained to not erase the dead of the public memory.
Pablo Escobar through growing international interest is sold as a trademark, and what is mostly visible is his enormous wealth and his excruciating impact on Colombia. Yet it is not difficult to find T-Shirts with his face in Medellin, worn by local juveniles. “It is also sending quite a damaging message. It is saying: ‘Go and become a criminal, because that way you can make money fast and lift your family out of poverty,'” Mr. Arellano, who chairs a foundation for Escobar’s victims, argues. The new generation does not get an introduction to the darker history of the country they are living in. There is no awareness raised that narcotrafico is not a suitable alternative to regular work. Money, and sex, and fame, are powerful forces dragging young people in the vortex of crime.
Today, despite the disturbing impact of cocaine on the local population, Cocaine tourism is a booming trend, at least in backpacker circles. It was a frequent topic, “Ah, we’re going to get some coke, you wanna come? It is gonna be great fun”, “I always get offered cigarettes or beer on the street, and then it turns out its coke, just a few dollars and so much better than at home!”, “Did I watch Narcos? Of course I did! Terrible, absolutely mortifying things that happened, can’t believe the misery… If I tried cocaine? Surely, you gotta do that when you are in Colombia, supposedly it is the purest you can get worldwide!”. After deep conversations with locals those comments gave me nausea, and I politely denied their offers.
Sometimes, however I asked whether the individual was aware of what their gram embodies: blood, suffering, misery and death. Blood on every gram. Not only in the 80s and 90s, but still to this very day. To this very second. Many shrugged. That one gram wouldn’t make the difference. It would just be a one time thing. Others were laying in their bed every morning, white powder still on their nose.
Cocaine has done much to shape Colombia, its people, and its international perception; and yet many people elsewhere are not aware of the scope it had and continues to have. The reason why this country was not accessible to tourism earlier, was the bloody fight for power around drug cartels and cocaine trafficking. Many people who now take the freedom to come to Colombia, ironically fuel the business that had deprived them from the ability to travel here just a few years ago.
I am not here to judge, I am only an observer, but it left me wondering. Can we all be oblivious, or do we choose to be ignorant and just don’t care?
We are all part of this debate. We, the public, users or non-users, are the ones steering the general perception of drugs as we reinforce certain norms and values that are related to that topic. Drug money runs in the economy regardless of the country, it saved many banks from collapsing in 2008. Though not everyone uses cocaine, the way we approach the subject plays integral part in its trade. Do we have an opinion? Do we engage in a public debate? It should be our concern regardless of whether we take it or not.
Every line of cocaine that drives the addictive search for permanent happiness, contains the blood of innocent and desperate people. For every exuberating joy there is excruciating pain. Cocaine tells the story of power struggle, of hope and unfulfilled dreams, of rags and riches, of death and endless joy. According to Roberto Saviano, who lives under police protection and investigates the global entanglements of the trade, everything starts and ends with people like us: “the place of origin, the drug’s route, the people who produce, transport, hide, and sell it. And then, the revenues: where they come from and, above all, where they end up. Everything that has to do with coke has to do with us, even those who don’t use it […].” We are all somehow part of this business, yet the relevant question is, how we deal with it. How much the users consider it relevant to minimize the harm done to the other humans we owe the splendid Friday night and wild memories; how much anguish we find acceptable in that little white line.
Look for Nike’s follow up article Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results in the next issue of Pandemic.